As bleary-eyed tennis fans, weekend players and even former world No. 1's devoted Thursday to re-living the dazzling shot-making of Andre Agassi's five-set quarterfinal victory over James Blake, debating whether it was the best or the second-best match ever played at the U.S. Open, those closest to Agassi woke up with other concerns.
Son Jaden Gil pounced on his father's bed at 8:15 a.m., determined to construct a house out of the blanket. Daughter Jaz Elle, nearly 2, toddled in behind, wanting to know if her father wanted coffee.
"She's really into helping me make coffee," Agassi explained Thursday. "You realize when you have special moments, they don't quite absorb it. They're not interested in your dramas."
Between them, Agassi and Blake performed a drama of the highest order in battling for the right to advance to Saturday's U.S. Open semifinal. The Americans started play at 10:18 p.m. Wednesday and finished at 1:09 a.m. Thursday, with the 35-year-old Agassi storming back from a two-sets deficit to win in a tiebreak, 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (8-6).
The only negative was that so few saw it apart from the 20,000 rapt ticket holders who couldn't be pried from their seats at Arthur Ashe Stadium. The match was broadcast live by USA Network, whose airtime runs until 11 p.m. but can be extended, to a point, if matches run long. But problems arise if play spills into CBS's window for nightly recaps, which starts at 12:37 a.m. For many viewers on the East Coast, that snuffed out the riveting drama before its final act, while others had long since fallen asleep.
"It's certainly not ideal when a match of that caliber and that hype starts so late and is not given its proper due," conceded former No. 1 Jim Courier, 35, an analyst with USA Network. "As a tennis fan I'm just grateful that I got to see it, and I hope that people will get an opportunity at some point to see it, or see highlights, or to feel the passion of the people who did get to see it."
Blake, 25, came out blazing, ripping his groundstrokes and retrieving those of Agassi's with lightning speed. With two sets under his belt and up a service break in the third, he was close to running away with the match.
"He was untouchable," said Agassi, who wailed wildly on his strokes in a futile effort to match Blake's pace.
With the match slipping away, Agassi soon settled himself and broke back. He won the third set and the fourth, gaining confidence as Blake's impossible tempo slowed.
Midnight came and went, but the quality of the match only improved in the fifth set. At roughly 1 a.m., the score was knotted at 6, forcing a tiebreak. Just before it began, Blake drew a deep breath and gazed up at the scoreboard.
"Doesn't get much better than this -- having my friends watching me, my coach, all my buddies," he said to himself, recounting the emotion afterward. "At that moment I couldn't have been happier."
Neither player folded down the stretch. Neither howled about bad calls or glowered at linesmen or hurled invectives across the net. They just dug deeper.
Facing match point, Blake drilled a forehand with absolutely no margin for error. And when Agassi had match point, he paid no mind to caution and ripped a service return for a winner.
"These weren't unforced errors; these were pure winners," gushed former pro Luke Jensen, 39, who taped the match on his MP3 player. "This was artistic play. You had to think tactics out there. You had to have guts out there."
Elsewhere, world No. 1 Roger Federer was glued to his TV set, despite the fact that his own quarterfinal was scheduled for Thursday afternoon. "My pulse was, 'Thump! Thump! Thump!' " the taciturn Federer later recalled, pounding his heart for emphasis, after his straight-sets victory over David Nalbandian. "I couldn't believe how the match turned out because it was looking so one-sided. It was great because it was so late in the night, two great players, two Americans in America. . . . the way they pushed each other, the way the quality of the tennis stayed great until the end."
Said Courier: "The match was decided by absolutely top-flight tennis at the most crucial moments -- rather than nerves, rather than bad calls. It was a pure tennis match, in that sense, by two guys who everyone could aspire to be, battling it out in the most sportsmanlike fashion. And it was a truly heartfelt hug afterwards, too. It was a moving match, and they don't come as often as we'd like."
While Blake's charmed run ended with an embrace, Agassi will play on. He'll face unseeded Robby Ginepri, the other American still standing, in one of Saturday's semifinals. Last year's runner-up Lleyton Hewitt (a five-set victor over Jarkko Nieminen on Thursday) faces Federer, the defending champion, who breezed through his quarterfinal, 6-2, 6-4, 6-1.
With at least one more match to prepare for, Agassi returned to the National Tennis Center Thursday for a light workout. Asked to reflect on his quarterfinal with Blake, Agassi said it was hard to be objective.
"But I work hard to give back as much as I can; I want to repay the sport for all it has given me," he said. "Last night is a great example of what this sport could be if we had more opportunities like that, a world stage, two Americans under the lights. It's the best energy I've ever felt. Never heard a crowd like that in my life.''